He is virtually a one man bridge between musical eras. His teachers, Mississippi John Hurt, Ledbelly, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were pioneers of American music, defining blues and roots as genres and serving as the foundation for decades of American music. His disciples, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Kris Kristofferson, and The Grateful Dead, have been some of the most influential and productive artists of the last 50 years. So it’s something of a crime that, while both his teachers and disciples are incredibly famous, most of the general public has never heard of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Let’s change that.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliot cut his musical teeth under Woody Guthrie’s wing in the 50s. He traveled the country, form the Appalachians to New Orleans, soaking up the music of each region. He toured Europe, influencing a generation of young musicians that would soon invade America. In the early 60s he hung out with a young Bob Dylan in New York, helping the young songwriter find his voice and style. In an era where artists are described as throwbacks, Jack is something different. He’s an original, and there aren’t too many of those left.
Over the years he has released more than 40 albums. Much like a good friend of his, Johnny Cash, many of the later albums fell on deaf ears, until his career experienced an astonishing rebirth. Cash had his American Recordings, raw interpretations of modern songs which revitalized his career and introduced his music to yet another generation of music lovers. Jack has a pair of albums with producer Joe Henry which find him following a similar path. The most recent one is A Stranger Here, which finds him playing Depression-era blues songs, lending them a gravity and authenticity nobody else can muster.
“I want somebody to tell me, what is the soul of a man?”. The question would sound trite coming from a spoiled 22-year-old rock star. But coming from a man who has lived long, seen much, and accomplished more, the question has meaning. If he, with all of his experiences, doesn’t know the answer, is it knowable?
“Please Remember Me”
Given the title and Jack’s aging status, it’s easy to interpret the song as a plea for immortality through celebrity. But in fact it’s a story of lost love, and the consolation that even though the love is gone, it will not be forgotten. Man, that’s a great topic for a blues song.
“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, Bob Dylan cover, live in 1980
“San Francisco Bay Blues”, on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest
“Muleskinner Blues”, on The Johnny Cash Show in 1971